Safe House

Finished off the long weekend with a little Denzel action. The man can play badass without breaking a sweat and in this movie all he does is kick other peoples asses and brains around. There is a little too much dependance on fistfights and car crashes and shootouts to make this work as the paranoid spy thriller it wants to be. It never rises above the level of action film with pretensions of insight. It looks like it is going to be a buddy spy film for a while and while it does have elements of that, there is not much time devoted to the motives of the two protagonists.

From the late sixties and early seventies on, there have been a thousand spy films with rogue elements of the CIA doing bad things. They must have the stupidest recruiters and the worst internal controls of any bureaucracy in history, at least if you buy any of the premises of these kinds of films. The story here involves a CIA agent that has turned traitor and may be selling secrets that will expose the CIA to international ridicule. The bad guy in the movie can be spotted early on because it is just casting that creates this character. None of this ultimately exonerates Denzel’s agent, but it is supposed to make it more acceptable that he is basically “Wiki-leaks” with a bank account. 

Ryan Reynolds does a credible job as a young CIA operative, in a low level, low priority job which suddenly becomes the center of the spy universe. He sells the desire to do the right thing with his puppy dog face, and he handles the action scenes with vigor. He needs to because every time we turn around there is running, fighting, chasing and shooting. There are more survivors of car crashes in this movie than there are on the streets of L.A., I know that for sure. People get shot, stabbed, beat up and they just keep going. You hope the real spies can do all of this stuff because most people can’t make it through the course in an episode of “Wipeout” without a longer breather than any of these guys get. The director relies on a lot of shaky cam work to pump up the action, but there is some good tight choreography as well.

A few years ago I saw a parody of action films where the lead, turns their back and walks away as an explosion goes off right behind them. It has become a cliche in the modern action world. Denzel seems to be making it his own personal cliche to put an extra bullet in the other guy when he is on the ground, and to do it while looking away. Of course the one time he fails to perform the cliche move, there is a negative consequence so in a sense it does set us up for one piece of business.  His character is supposed to be an expert at manipulating assets with psychology, but we hardly get any of that. That would have made the relationship with Reynold’s character so much more interesting than we got here. There was enough to sustain the loud gunfights and action sequences but not the story threads.

Sometimes these films rise to a level of excellence that is impressive, but more often they simply compete with one another on body count and action. This is a missed opportunity. It was still a worthy movie, after all it features Denzel doing his thing, but the stone cold facial expression sometimes needs a little more backup. What this movie really did for me was make me want to see some Denzel films where he gets to do more than just his thousand yard stare. I could really go for seeing him work opposite Gene Hackman again. Those two are fantastic in “Crimson Tide”. If you just want a shoot em up, this movie fits the bill, but if you want something a little sweeter from Mr. Washington, maybe go back and check out some other work instead.

‘This Means War’

In an effort to come down from yesterday’s sugar rush of movies, today we have a little bit of the hair of the dog so to speak. A single movie that no one will remember for good or ill in a few months. There is nothing about it that I found offensive but there was also nothing about it that I found particularly worthwhile either. It has cute guys for the girls, Reese Witherspoon for the guys and a bunch of misused spy craft for everyone else. Some explosions, a couple of smiles, and maybe a laugh or two. If you are looking for a date movie this will do fine, it is entertaining enough but it won’t interrupt the rest of your evening with conversation about the meaning of it all or the film maker’s craft.

The two guys featured are up and comers Chris Pine and Tom Hardy. Pine is the new Captain Kirk in the relaunched Star Trek movies. As far as Amanda is concerned, he is a terrific actor, which translated means, “yummy”. Tom Hardy was in my favorite movie last year, “Warrior” where he is a menacing, hulking presence and does most of his acting with his fists. Both of these guys get to trade on their natural gifts, Pine uses his baby blue eyes, crooked smile and smart guy attitude to woo our female protagonist. Hardy plays it sincere with a natural physicality that I guess would be appealing to the opposite sex, oh, and he has a British accent. The third part of our triangle is Miss Witherspoon, last year seen in Water for Elephants and seemingly a little old for her co-star there. She hasn’t gotten younger but the make up and costume people on this shoot made sure that she would be a desirable woman for the two younger guys (and us old guys also). She does a completely unnecessary booty dance that reminded me of Cameron Diaz in Charlie’s Angels. I guess that should not be a surprise since McG, the director of this film also directed that piece of cotton candy film.

Comparisons to “True Lies” might be in order since the film does feature a spy romance where the profession of espionage agent is being hidden from the romantic partner. Also, a lot of government resources are being used for personal purposes that verge on the brink of creepy stalking. What is missing from this movie that “True Lies” had in abundance is a real action spy movie to immerse the romance in. This movie sets up such a plot line, abandons it for most of the rest of the movie and then revives it in the last ten minutes. The spy stuff never feels serious and there are stupid resolutions to most of the action in that last section. The set ups of the shots felt like out takes from “Fletch” and “Speed”. The shots from those movies that were too tired to be used in their respective stories.

For a modern twist on romance being conflicted by two rivals, the story makes some pretty dated references. My guess is that the dialogue of Reese’s friend will be lost on contemporary audiences. Do any teens and twenties really know who Gloria Steinem is? This movie sets up Pine as a smooth up to the minute player, and he is using Sade as his seduction song and the cute meet with Reese takes place in a video rental store? Those devices would have been funny ten years ago but here they seem lazy. It is just screenwriter shorthand to save from having to develop something original. The dating site jokes were old a decade ago when I saw them in “Must Love Dogs”, why would anyone think this is a fresh take on this kind of story? The idea of Spy vs. Spy is a good one but underdeveloped and used only for the barest of story structure here.

Anyone can see the romantic resolution coming from early on. The bad guy is not menacing enough and is clearly too stupid to be much of a threat, maybe that’s why he disappears from the movie for ninety percent of the time. There are some ridiculous romantic set ups that would be cheesy in any film, but set in a world of international espionage, they stand out as obvious. Attempting to match up to an ex-boyfriend, dating at a carnival, lying about volunteering at a pet shelter, all provide quick jokes but no real humor and never any sympathy for any character. This movie is product, but not even good product like an obvious romantic comedy. It gets a reaction in the most obvious way possible and then moves on to the next set up.   There were several times when I noticed story continuity issues, but the film just keeps plugging along. It may be a better evening to go out and see this with a date, than spending time in watching Law and Order or NCIS, but just barely.